Celebrating the railway: Transpo’s cleanest mode

It shouldn’t be any mystery that the main Air Quality Matters focus this month is transportation. That topic continues today with trains. Just in case you were not aware, National Transportation Week this year was May 11th to May 15th.

Train of thought

It is no secret that one of the world’s main air pollution contributors is the transportation sector. It is second only to energy.

DSCN4328 (255x340)“Among all sectors, the transport sector is the only one in which emissions are continuing to increase in spite of all the technological advances,” the International Union of Railways (UIC) declared in its High Speed Rail and Sustainability report in Nov. 2011. “Moreover, transport emissions, for instance in Europe, increased by 25% between 1990 and 2010. By contrast emissions from the industrial and energy sectors are falling.”1

Railways, by comparison, are among the cleanest transportation modes. Two percent of total global transport emissions are train-produced.2

What’s more, the train, by far, is the transport sector’s most efficient mode.

In “Proposed short-haul freight rail line linking Central, Southern California has potential,” I wrote: “Meanwhile, on page 2 of [The Altamont/San Joaquin Valley Corridor – Rail Sub-Program to the National Goods Movement Trade Corridor and Economics Stimulus Program for the San Joaquin Valley, Draft Version 2.5 – San Joaquin Valley National Agricultural Goods Movement Trade Corridor: Rail Program Concept Paper – October 2008] concept paper, presented is a graph which shows the energy intensities (in British Thermal Units per ton-mile) of freight modes (as of 2004) comparing Waterborne, Pipeline, Rail, and Heavy Duty Diesel Truck. The least energy intense is rail at 325 Btu/ton-mile while the most energy intense is heavy duty diesel truck at 3,163 Btu/ton-mile, making diesel truck-hauled freight the least energy efficient of the group.”

Rwt050125_2[1]Add to all this that railways are one of the safest, if not the safest, of the non-human-powered modes, surface transportation or otherwise, if this isn’t reason enough to celebrate the train and the railway just on that basis alone, then I don’t know what is.

There is one additional point worth mentioning. It was only recently that a magnetically levitated (MagLev) train in Japan set a world speed record reaching a velocity of 375 miles per hour. And, there is new information about a MagLev train that could be constructed between the Orlando International Airport and International Drive with service to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. This would be a slower-speed version. These trains are, for all intents and purposes, pollution-free. So far, magnetically levitated trains are used exclusively to transport passengers.

A Transrapid 09 magnetically levitated train in Germany
A Transrapid 09 magnetically levitated train in Germany


  1. High Speed Rail and Sustainability, International Union of Railways, Nov. 2011, p. 15.
  2. Ibid, p. 15

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